Medical Staff Profile: Andrew Dennison, M.D., Physiatrist, Shepherd Center
Q: Why did you decide to become a doctor and then specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation?
A: My father and grandfather are physicians, so they modeled the profession for me. I saw them working in their careers, the relationships they formed with patients and how those patients appreciated them. Also, medicine matched my strengths academically. I saw that medicine would be a fulfilling career for me.
As for physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM & R), it is a lesser-known field. But it is one that allows for longer relationships with patients. You get to see your patients getting better in most cases, and that is rewarding.
Q: From the patient’s standpoint, what qualities make you an excellent physician?
A: I am committed to communicating well with the treatment team and patient’s family members. I listen to others’ opinions and adjust the plan of care as needed. I believe it’s important to have an open mind, to consider other options. You can make mistakes if you make up your mind without listening to the ideas of others.
Q: Shepherd Center is known for some distinctive approaches to the practice of rehabilitation medicine. What aspects are most professionally rewarding to you and effective in producing excellent patient outcomes?
A: One of Shepherd Center’s strengths is the expertise and commitment of its staff, which is specialized in treating brain and spinal cord injuries. Another strength is the decreased ratio of staff to patients. That allows therapists and case managers, among others, to give more time to their patients.
Q: At the core of Shepherd Center’s mission is the goal of helping patients rebuild their lives with hope, independence and dignity, advocating for their full inclusion in all aspects of community life. In a practical sense, what does that mean to you in the way you perform your job?
A: We respect the patient, even when they are not quite themselves. We don’t objectify the patient. We treat them like a person, not like a disease or injury.
Q: How do you offer hope to patients at Shepherd?
A: I draw upon my experiences in treating people with brain injuries. I share stories of recovery with both the patient and family.
Another thing we do here at Shepherd is to utilize peer visitors. These are people, typically former Shepherd Center patients, who have been there and can share their experiences in a different way than the staff can provide.
Q: What should brain injury patients and their families keep in mind as they start their recovery journey?
A: When families arrive at Shepherd, they are often still in emergency mode. They need to take a break, take a depth breath and take care of themselves while their family member is recovering. It’s a long process. They need time to come to terms with the “new normal” life they will have eventually. It’s best to look at progress on a week-to-week basis rather than day by day.
Q: What promise does the future hold for improved treatments for people with brain injuries?
A: There is a lot of basic scientific research under way now that is focused on neuroplasticity – the idea that the neurological system can adjust itself functionally by reorganizing neural maps and allowing some recovery of lost abilities. While we have been able to incorporate some new discoveries into our day-today practice, I hope that newer translational research will lead to new therapeutic options within the next decade that will help us provide more effective rehabilitation.
Interesting Facts about Andrew Dennison, M.D.:
Experience: Medical program director for brain injury and stroke at Walton Rehabilitation Health System, Augusta, Ga., 2009-2011
Physiatry Residency: Baylor College of Medicine/University of Texas-Houston PM&R Alliance
Fellowship: Carolinas Rehabilitation, Charlotte, N.C.
Medical School: University of Pennsylvania
Undergraduate Degree: Emory University
• He was a high school state wrestling champion in Georgia in 1996.
• Dr. Dennison plays the bass, guitar and mandolin and used to be in a cover band when he was a student at Emory.
• Today, he spends most of his free time with his wife Olivia, a speech-language pathologist, and their children.
Interviewed by Jane M. Sanders
Photography by Gary Meek
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.